Since 2015 it has been impossible to think about UK elections without considering the role played by digital technology and social media. Political parties are of course desperate to use this technology to win votes. However, the fact this technology is now so common and generally low-cost means there’s been a wider impact on the electoral landscape. Whereas once the key players in elections were well-established – the parties, newspapers and broadcast media, trade unions, business lobbyists – now we are seeing an increasing number of entities getting involved. Some are non-partisan such as voter advice applications and voter registration drives. Others are clearly partisan, even if not always directly associated with a party, ranging from social movements to alternative media, tactical voting sites, and partisan blogs; in 2017 we even saw the computer game ‘Corbyn Run’ and Grime4Corbyn music campaign.
In our research we’ve called these political players ‘entities’ rather than organisations because their structural qualities change so much from one to the other. Some run centrally-organised and highly structured campaigns. Others are loose collectives. A handful are simply individuals with large followings on social media. Some are extremely partisan – primarily supporting Labour, but a few are also Brexit-related. These tend to campaign like ‘satellites’ of the parties, orbiting close enough to take the lead from central campaigns and amplify them, but also pushing their own narratives. Quite how much control – if any – parties have over the message pushed by these outriders is not clear. In contrast, others make attempts to be politically neutral and seek to increase voter registration, turnout, and knowledge.
Whilst the political landscape has seen an enormous rise in the number of these entities that are engaging in electoral activity, researchers actually know little about who they are, what they do, and the impact they have. Few appear to spend enough money to register with the Electoral Commission. Many have small resources and teams and fall dormant outside of elections. Yet voter advice applications and tactical voting websites reported hit numbers during the 2017 election in the millions. In that election, cross-party campaign groups managed to mobilise volunteers and canvassers who are usually put off at the thought of stuffy political party meetings. They possibly played a role in knocking Nick Clegg off his seat in Sheffield Hallam. They will certainly be targeting Boris Johnson.
As the 2019 election gets properly underway, we provide a rough guide to some key partisan and non-partisan entities (although that line too, can be blurry):
Now a well-established force in party politics, Momentum was established to support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid in 2015. Perhaps best described as a ‘movement faction’, it seeks to influence Labour Party politics whilst also operating its own campaign strategy. This campaigning includes a considerable social media presence and often uses emojis, memes, and humour, alongside the production of slick campaign videos which often take on a satirical or ironic tone that you won’t see from official party material. During 2017 a number of these videos racked up some of the largest numbers of hits and shares, especially on Facebook. But Momentum is anything but a digital-only organisation: it also organises activist training, canvassing and phone-calling across the country. For what we have seen so far in 2019, Momentum has really stepped up its efforts to facilitate distributed organising both to canvass and to produce shareable online content.
Alt media and other ‘outriders’
In 2017, the left appeared much more co-ordinated in this space with a number of left-leaning and pro-Corbyn citizen media organisations highly active on Facebook and Twitter, including Evolve, The Canary, Novara Media and Skwawkbox, as well as bloggers such as Another Angry Voice, and journalists such as Owen Jones. In comparison, whilst Guido Fawkes is a large presence on social media, other right-wing players such as Breitbart accounts appeared less prominent. In 2019 this appears true for Twitter, but there does seem to be a growing Brexiteer presence on Facebook.
There are a number of tactical voting sites, some prioritising Remain (Remain United and Best For Britain) and some being anti-Conservative (Tactical.vote and Tactical Vote). Before the election got underway, Best for Britain came under fire for suggesting potentially misleading tactical options. An attempt to make sense of the conflicting recommendations has been carried out, but the sticking point still comes down to just what data and methods to use – especially tricky when politics is so volatile and smaller parties are forming alliances and standing aside for each other.
A lot of this space is filled by civic-tech organisations who are essentially trying to work out the best ways to collect, store, and share the vast amounts of electoral data available to better help people and organisations empower themselves. These organisations included Democracy Club, Democratic Dashboard and mySociety. Types of campaigns include voter advice applications (VAAs), voter registration drives, get out the vote campaigns, and sites designed to improve general political knowledge.
A VAA is an app that provides a set of questions on a user’s political priorities and policy preferences and then suggests a party to vote for. This information is usually cribbed from manifestos – however, as with all tech of this sort, the design of the algorithm and accuracy of the data is paramount. These issues can be compounded if the VAA also provides tactical voting options.
Get out the vote and general political knowledge
Voter registration drives and ‘get out the vote’ campaigns include Bite the Ballot, Voting Counts and ShoutOut UK. There are also campaigns that are not focused on voting per se, but just wider democratic knowledge, such as Simple Politics. Getting people to vote is generally seen as a non-partisan issue. However, campaigns which focus primarily on younger voters get associated with left-leaning politics as this matches their expected voting behaviour. In 2017 young people were seen as a key demographic, and this is likely to be the case again.
Note: This research is funded by British Academy Grant on Non-Party Campaigning and Digital Technology (SRG18R1\180515).
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).